Hundreds evacuated by sea as wildfire reaches Turkish power plant

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Turkish rescuers on Thursday began evacuating hundreds of villagers by sea after a deadly wildfire engulfed the outer edges of a thermal power plant storing thousands of tons of coal, Agence France-Presse reported.

An AFP team saw firefighters and police fleeing the 35-year-old Kemerköy plant in the Aegean province of Muğla as bright balls of orange flame tore through the surrounding hills.

Hundreds of local villagers — many clutching small bags of belongings grabbed from their abandoned houses as the evacuation call sounded — began piling onto coastguard speedboats at the nearby port of Ören.

The regional authority said “all explosive chemicals” and other hazardous material had been removed from the strategic site.

“But there’s a risk that the fire could spread to the thousands of tons of coal inside,” regional mayor Osman Gürün told reporters.

Local officials said hydrogen tanks used to cool the station had been emptied and filled with water as a precaution.

Turkish news reports said most of the coal had been moved from the plant to a storage site five kilometers (three miles) away as a precaution when the blaze first approached the region at the start of the week.

More than 180 wildfires have scorched huge swathes of forest and killed nine people since breaking out along almost the entire perimeter of Turkey’s Aegean and Mediterranean coasts.

The European Union’s satellite monitoring service said their “radiative power” — a measure of the fires’ intensity — “has reached unprecedented values in the entire dataset, which goes back to 2003”.

‘No room for politics’

The fires’ strength and scale have exposed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to days of criticism for what some observers say has been his sluggish response to the crisis.

Erdoğan had just begun a live television interview about the fires as news broke about the evacuation of the plant.

He acknowledged that the efforts of firefighters to save the station were failing in the face of “tremendous wind” fanning the flames.

But he also lashed out at opposition leaders for trying to score political points by questioning his governments’ readiness and response.

“When fires break out in America or Russia, (the opposition) stands by the government,” said Erdoğan.

“Like elsewhere in the world, there has been a big increase in the forest fires in our country. There should be no room for politics here.”

The Turkish government appears to have been caught off guard by the scale and ferocity of the flames.

Its media watchdog on Tuesday warned broadcasters that they might be fined if they continue showing live footage of the blazes or air images of screaming people running for their lives.

Most rolling news channels dropped their coverage of the unfolding disaster until the fire reached the power plant.

Temperature record broken

Erdoğan himself has been subjected to days of ridicule on social media after he tossed bags of tea to crowds of people while touring one of the affected regions under heavy police escort.

The opposition has also accused the powerful Turkish leader of being too slow to accept offers of foreign assistance — including from regional rival Greece — and for having failed to properly maintain firefighting planes.

Erdoğan’s office blamed the very first blazes near Antalya on arsonists, which pro-government media linked to banned Kurdish militants waging a decades-long war against the state.

But more and more public officials now link them to an extreme heatwave that has dried up reservoirs and created tinderbox conditions across much of Turkey’s south.

Experts have warned that climate change in countries such as Turkey increases both the frequency and intensity of wildfires. The government of neighboring Greece has directly linked devastating fires there, which covered the capital Athens in smoke on Wednesday, to global warming.

Turkey’s Agriculture and Forestry Minister Bekir Pakdemirli said temperatures in the Aegean city of Marmaris had reached an all-time record of 45.5 degrees Celsius (114 degrees Fahrenheit) this week.

“We are fighting a very serious war,” the minister told reporters. “I urge everyone to be patient.”

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